On August 17, in spite of a few technical difficulties, I managed to catch up with AJ Lee and Blue Summit, who were touring the East Coast. Zooming from my Airbnb in Eugene, Oregon, to their hotel room in Truro, Massachusetts, we talked about their new album, touring, banjos, and work during the past year-plus of quarantine.
If you’ve been around the California bluegrass world for any length of time, you probably know the band well—both as individuals and as an ensemble. AJ Lee and Blue Summit made their first appearance in Santa Cruz in 2015, led by singer, songwriter, and mandolinist, AJ Lee. Although falling loosely within the bluegrass genre, AJLBS generally plays without a banjo (we discuss this), with Sullivan Tuttle and Jesse Fichman on acoustic guitars, Jan Purat (formerly of Steep Ravine) on fiddle, and Chad Bowen on upright bass.
Their first album, Like I Used To, was released in 2019. Their newest album, I’ll Come Back, was released August 20, 2021. Here’s the first part of the interview. They had a lot to say, so stay tuned for part two in September.
Jan: I’ll give you a little quick tour. AJ and I are having a tea party right now. The hotel overlooks the water in the distance. We’re staying in a town called Truro which is on the Cape.
Maggie: Tell me a little about your new album.
Jesse: We’ve been together as this band for about three years, with Jan joining last. We’ve wrapped up some original songs that AJ has written. We also included some songs that she’d written quite a while ago. It was just about time to make another album, and we had enough material for it. We love doing covers, but if we’re putting out an album we wanted to make sure that it was going to be all original. So that’s how the second album came along.
Maggie: How has the pandemic affected your creativity as a band, and you as a songwriter?
AJ: You know, it has it been good to be in quarantine this past year or so–or at least it hasn’t been horrible. I’m not sure if it really has been good or bad, it’s just something that’s happened to us. The bad side is obvious–we can’t do anything at any time or with anyone. But, the good side is we did get together in a pod really early on in the pandemic. We were not going to stop doing our band thing because we wanted to make progress and not lose what progress we’ve already made. We were able to really focus on working on the dynamics of the band and what we want to sound like. So, it’s been really helpful in that sense. Actually, I also think the fan aspect has been pretty helpful. The band started doing livestreams pretty early during the pandemic. We had a gig early on that turned into a livestream, and we actually thought it was pretty cool. We also got hired to do some live streams, and then kept them going for the whole year. Because we were doing this, we started seeing people joining in from India, Portugal, and Brazil, and other places, too.
On this tour we’ve had a chance to meet some people that were fans for online throughout the last year. So, we’re doing shows for the first time here in New England. We’ve even had to add a matinee show for our gig because our shows are selling out.
Maggie: Where is this tour taking you?
AJ: Different places on the East Coast–we have a few long drives. We started in Saratoga Springs and then we jumped over to Goshen, Connecticut and then we went to back to New York. Now we’re here in Massachusetts–we’ve got another gig in Massachusetts, and then we’re going down to Virginia and Pennsylvania. We’re playing an old coal mining town called Jim Thorpe–so that will be a lot of fun.
Maggie: Here’s an irreverent question for you: Why no banjo? Was this a conscious choice, or was there just not a particular banjo player you wanted to play with?
Jesse: I think it’s a conscious choice.
AJ: Originally, I don’t think we really had a configuration in mind. When Blue Summit was formed it was because the Tuttles with AJ Lee was on hiatus because Molly Tuttle moved to Nashville. So my friend my childhood friend Isaac Cornelius went up to me and said, “Hey, you, you, you, and you–we’re all in a band now.” He just kind of picked everyone he wanted to be in a band with, and it just didn’t happen to have a banjo. As we progressed, we figured it benefited us in a way–we can experiment with more genres a little bit more easily not having a banjo.
Jesse: That being said, sometimes I do miss playing with a banjo. Luckily, we have a lot of banjo friends.
AJ: We love having banjo guests.
Jan: It’s kind of a cool thing, too, because we have like so many different types of banjo players that are friends of ours in California and all over the country, too. We get to have some you know the variety of someone like Al Moreau, who’s more of a progressive-leaning banjo player. Then we have our all our amazing traditional banjo players in California that I’m excited to have come sit in with us.
Chad: We’re looking forward to having our booking agent, Chandler Holt, sit in with us while we’re in Denver.
AJ: We haven’t asked him yet.
Chad: We haven’t asked him yet, he doesn’t know yet, but he’s singing with us. He’s a banjo player.
Jan: He played in a band called Chatham County Line for many years before becoming a booking agent. We also had our CBA member Christine Wilhoyte on our record. She did a great job on a gospel tune that AJ wrote.
Maggie: I really love the single “Magdalene” which was just released. How did this song come about?
AJ: I wrote that one because I’ve been singing a lot of bluegrass songs all of my life, and you realize when you cover Merle Haggard, or any other male singer, you usually sing, “She left me,” or “She found another man.” I think maybe “Magdalene” first started with my mom. She taught me these songs and she would change the pronouns for me. Before I really knew how the song sounded, she would already change the pronouns, so I wouldn’t be singing, “She left me.” But I wanted to write a song where the pronouns matter.
Maggie: How do you think the band’s music has evolved?
Jesse: A big part of it depends on what songs we end up writing. We have a lot of variety with each song, and each song has its own genre. I think we’re pretty open–if we all like the song, then we’ll do it.
AJ: I’ll chime in and say it’s it is mostly up to how we as individuals hear a song that I write. There’s a song on the new album, “Faithful,” that it sounds like a really bluegrassy song–like a Lester Flatt/Earl Scruggs kind of style. I don’t know how many of the band members know this, but when I originally wrote it, it was a pop song. So however we play the song is its genre.
Jan: I think this record reflects a little bit more of the live sound of the band. The band’s gone through some changes before I joined it. There were some drums in the mix at some point. The last album reflected a bit more experimentation. There were also some different session musicians and there were some different fiddlers, including John Mailander.
Jesse: Now that we have a full-time fiddle player, I feel less of a need to experiment.
Next month: Part 2 of my interview